Progressive mealtimes – Are they right for your service?

Published on Tuesday, 01 June 2021
Last updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2021

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This week Nicole Halton from Inspired EC describes her experiences with progressive mealtimes in early learning services and explains some of the benefits of this approach for children.

I clearly remember my first ever practicum at an early childhood service, while I was completing my studies. It was a long day care service, open long hours and with several rooms in operation. There was a kitchen and a central dining area, and for a chunk of time in the middle of the day, each room (with the exception of the nursery) would take it in turns to head to the dining area, where the children were served a hot meal. 

Each day I observed, as children:

  • didn't like the food on offer
  • were too tired to eat their food
  • were disgruntled at having had to leave their play

Each day I observed, as educators: 

  • Performed "crowd control" duties
  • Tried to keep track of who had eaten and how much
  • Did battle with children who refused to eat

It was a pretty exhausting experience some days to be honest. 

Fast forward twelve months to my first full time position in a service, and although the children were bringing their own lunchboxes, the experience - for both children and educators - was much the same. 

Over time (a lot of time) and with some deep reflection and conversation, we decided to trial progressive meal times. At the time, we didn't have a name for it - it was more just "the children can eat when they are hungry." 

We had observed that the children in our service arrived anywhere from 7:30am up until 11:30am, making the morning tea time of 9:30am far too late for some, and meaning that for others - they had just arrived and were ready to play. For awhile we explored progressive morning/afternoon tea times, and then also progressive lunch times, with some mixed results and obviously, some challenges.

In recent years, now working as a consultant, I am often asked by services if they should be doing progressive meals - almost as though it has become a trend or expectation. My answer is always the same: if it is the right fit for your service. 

Why might progressive mealtimes work for you?

  • Children are arriving at varied times throughout the morning
  • Children bring their own food to your service or are served cold foods (hot meals can make progressive lunch a challenge)
  • You are wanting to provide longer blocks of uninterrupted play (so important!) 
  • You have a team of educators committed to experimenting with the process

What might be some of the challenges?

  • Keeping track of children who have eaten or not eaten
  • Overcoming some of the fears or concerns from educators or families (see the graphic further on in this post!) 
  • Balancing supervision of mealtimes with interaction with children in relation to the program

Why do progressive mealtimes work? 

Let's be clear - progressive mealtimes do not work in every service. But, I am yet to visit a service who would not be able to implement some level of flexibility, autonomy, choice and freedom into their meal times. This might mean that a service has a flexible morning tea "window" of time, where children can come and eat anytime between 9am and 11am (for example).

Why is this beneficial to children? 

1. Meeting their needs - one word "Maslow". When children's core needs are met, they are better able to function, to put it in very simplistic terms. As adults, we know that we don't always feel like morning tea at 9:30am on the dot. The same applies to children. Perhaps Sarah slept in and ate a late breakfast, so doesn't become hungry until 10:30. Or Xavier is having a growth spurt and is ready by 9am. 

2. Less interruption to play. When we take time to understand play, and play cycles, we know that interrupting children's play is not ideal. Where possible, children should have long blocks of uninterrupted time to play. How frustrating is it - as an adult - to be right in the middle of something and have to stop to go and do something that someone else is saying they want/need you to do?! 

3. Listening to their own bodies. We want children to be able to "tune in" to what their bodies are telling them (the sense of interoception), to listen and to respond appropriately. For example - if the child's stomach is grumbling, it may be an indication that they need to eat. If we say "no, you can't eat now, it's not time", we are essentially overriding the child's ability to tune in to their body. 

We want to add more flexibility... where do we start?

You've decided that those benefits sound pretty amazing, but are not sure how to get started. There are some key things that you can do to make progressive mealtimes successful in your service: 

  1. Open communication - with educators, with families, and most importantly - with children. Talk about the benefits, talk about the challenges. Don't just talk about it once, but revisit and revisit as challenges arise, or as time goes on. 
  2. Create a designated space (either indoors, outdoors or both depending on your program and environment) that is for meals. 
  3. Create a roster or plan to ensure that an educator is present and available to assist children to wash their hands, to supervise, to support and to connect during mealtimes. 
  4. Implement systems to help you manage potential challenges. Worried a child won't eat and that no-one will notice? You might start with a list of each child's name and cross them off once they have eaten. 
  5. Make a note of children that you might need to keep an extra eye on (ones who might forget to eat, or who have specific dietary needs)

Ultimately, progressive mealtimes can be a fantastic way to give children some "power" in their day, to allow them to listen to their bodies, to navigate their play time and routine time in their own way. You will often find, after the initial fears and some early challenges, that children (and educators) will settle into a rhythm that will make the whole day flow so much smoother, and you are left wondering why you didn't do it sooner. 

This article was written by Nicole Halton from Inspired EC and is reproduced with permission.

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